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The curious case of the Keamari ‘gas leak’

Reporting | and - Posted: Feb 22, 2020 | Last Updated: 8 months ago
Posted: Feb 22, 2020 | Last Updated: 8 months ago
The curious case of the Keamari ‘gas leak’

Photo: Online

Rehmat Gul, who lost his sister Namaz to the Keamari “gas leak” incident, has little confidence in the media reports citing allergies to soybean dust as the possible cause of the death of 14 people in Karachi.

His theory: port labourers were working without masks and did not even cough, but the residents of Railway Colony died.

But lab and autopsy reports seem to reiterate exposure to soybean dust as the popular possible cause of the deaths.

Rehmat’s sister was taken to Ziauddin hospital, but she died before she could get any treatment. The doctors asked us to take her back, said Rehmat as he concluded the funeral rites of his sister.

Another man, Muhammad Zeeshan, who lost his wife Yasmeen to the deadly, but mysterious outbreak, sat next to Rehmat.

The two families did not what to do, where to go or how to protest.

Their neighborhood has some 400 quarters and it is adjacent to the boundary wall of the Shell Lubricant Oil Blending Plant. This was the most affected area.

The residents said they could all feel something was terribly wrong in the atmosphere. They couldn’t breathe properly. Their eyes were red and there was a strange pain around most people’s ribs.

They are worried because they have never seen anything like this. “If it was indeed the soybean dust, it would have become routine by now,” said one resident.

Committees have been set up to investigate the incident, experts have been called in, plausible causes have been suggested, but the authorities concerned have yet to explain how 14 people lost their lives.

Senior government officials can be seen having a laugh in the pictures attached with press statements issued by the government.

The port authorities declined to comment saying that the matter was under investigation and a top-level joint committee, under the supervision of Karachi Commissioner Iftikhar Shalwani, was formed and referred to a press release that cited the development.

However, no official notification on the formation of the committee or its agenda and deadline could be found.

The KPT spokesperson says the ship Hercules, which carried the soybean container, has been sailed off to Port Qasim and now Port Qasim authorities will confirm any development.

The Ministry of Maritime Affairs has done little to keep those at risk safe.

What do the autopsy reports say?

The autopsy reports of the 14 victims were shared by the Sindh health department on Saturday.

A summary of the report says the government’s chemical examination laboratory “did not find any chemical or traces of gases in the blood or lungs of the victims.”

They were sent from the office of Sindh Director Laboratories and Chemical Examiner Dr Shahid Mustafa Memon to Health Secretary Zahid Abbasi.

These also included samples of dust and soybean seeds, as per the report. The substances they tested for are: ammonia, carbon monoxide, phosphines, hydrogen sulphide, metals, insecticides, corrosives and opium and its derivatives. There are, however, contradictions as not all of these substances were tested for on all the samples.

Samples of one unidentified person from Jackson, Keamari were found to contain morphine. The report adds: “However, the post-mortem/autopsy findings and observation by the undersigned in the single case received, P-58-B/2020 deceased unknown are suggestive of dust exposure. Therefore, it is likely that the current incidence may be due to exposure of soyabean dust.”

This victim’s stomach, a piece of small intestine with contents, pieces of lungs, liver, spleen and left kidney and samples of saline solution were sent from Civil hospital. The results showed presence of morphine in the organs, but tested negative for all other substances.

Urine and blood samples of three victims, Hafsa Malik, Muzammil and Danish Wahid, received from PNS Shifa, were tested for ammonia, carbon monoxide, phosphines and hydrogen sulphide only. They were found negative.

Another victim’s blood, urine and stomach contents were also received from PNS Shifa. They were also just tested for ammonia, carbon monoxide, phosphines and hydrogen sulphide and came out negative.

From Civil hospital, the blood sample of Imran Ashraf was tested for seven substances (but not opium and its derivatives). The results were negative.

Additionally, beans and soil samples were tested for the same substances.

The Sindh health department endorsed the report and the one earlier by the Karachi University’s International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences that found staggering amounts of IgE allergens, which are the antibodies that develop in reaction to allergies.

KU’s report

The ICCBS used an example of other countries where the same allergies and even casualties were reported in port areas where soybean containers were offloaded.

ICCBS Director Professor Dr Iqbal Choudhary, in a letter to the Karachi commissioner wrote, “The symptoms due to exposure to soybean dust (aeroallergens) may be considered as the possible cause.”

But Dr Choudhary said the reports are of preliminary importance and not a verdict on the case. He said there should be more investigation.

He said the ICCBS is not an official authority as it only volunteered.

The ICCBS has demanded the government to:

  • immediately investigate the incident after having engaged forensic experts and those that have carried out similar researches in cases outside Pakistan
  • establish poison control centres
  • constantly monitor the atmosphere of and around the port.

Invest in public health: experts

Doctor Lubna and Doctor Junaid Razzaq, experts in Public Health Emergency, say that the government needs to invest more in public health keeping the dense population surrounding the port area in mind.

Dr Junaid said that the country only had one toxicologist and it wasn’t enough.

The doctors at Ziauddin

Doctors who treated patients at Ziauddin, Keamari told SAMAA Digital the neurological symptoms they were seeing did not match those of soybean allergy.

A retired chief engineer of the merchant navy, who has several years of experience dealing with ports and shipping, also said the first people to be affected by soybean dust would have been dock workers on or around the ship.

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Keamari, Karachi, Port Qasim, Ziauddin, gas leak, toxic

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